The Art of Crash Landing
Melissa DeCarlo
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The Art of Crash Landing
Melissa DeCarlo
432 pages
September 2015
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Dysfunction breeds more dysfunction. Mattie Wallace is heir to her mother’s alcohol-fueled unhappiness, a premature death from cancer leaving the daughter bitter and self-destructive. Child of an alcoholic, Mattie has learned the coping skills of the chronically disenfranchised, inherent mistrust and poor choices perpetuating more of the same. Living in the shadow of an undisciplined, emotionally immature mother in the Florida panhandle, Mattie has not learned the language of success or self-love, and she continues the cycle as she finds herself homeless and pregnant at thirty, untethered and circling the drain. Mattie’s only emotional connection is to her stepfather, Queeg, who is facing a diagnosis of lung cancer when she receives a notice of her maternal grandmother’s death in Gandy, Oklahoma.

Though she hasn’t seen her grandmother for years, Mattie goes her headstrong way against Queeg’s advice, driving to Oklahoma in an ancient and failing Chevy Malibu (her mother’s beloved car) that promptly quits near the lawyer’s office in downtown Gandy. Her inheritance isn’t much: outstanding debts, a small house and two dogs named Winston. Mattie is stuck in Gandy at least three months for probate. Falling into her usual pattern--snarky, cynical and adept at manipulating others--Mattie settles in and gets a job, surprised to feel her rage subsiding and replaced by a yearning to understand her mother’s secret past and why she left Gandy thirty-five years before. A talent for photography links mother and daughter. Mattie ignores her pregnancy and carries her mother’s camera bag, slowly navigating the house of an old woman who clearly loved her errant daughter, Genie’s room the same as when the girl left without a word. Gradually, Mattie learns that people in town remember Eugenia Wallace, a few fondly, most not.

DeCarlo mines fertile territory in her first novel, her acerbic, witty protagonist a study in contradictions, a woman without boundaries and a need to reject a world that has brought little but pain and confusion. Escaping her own troubled past, this flight into Genie’s history yields unexpected insights and a pathway to forgiveness. Mattie’s harsh judgment of maternal shortcomings  is softened by the detritus of a childhood room, complete with teenage paraphernalia and a makeshift darkroom. Sensing the roots of family, Mattie is seduced unwittingly, wandering the rooms of a shabby house littered with photographs and memorabilia, the home her mother fled without explanation: “I’m starting to worry that I’ve done what I always do: mistake a distraction for a chance at redemption.”

This is a novel about mapping the lost territory of the past, finding the courage to confront the truth and allowing the balm of forgiveness to heal a weary soul. De Carlo’s unlikable, selfish protagonist throws off the bondage of pain she has embraced as a protective shield, acknowledging her own responsibility in determining her choices: “Sometimes my entire life has felt like one long exercise in lowering expectations.” It is an emotionally painful, jagged journey, each character authentic, flawed and unembellished. Mattie changes the way she views the world, shedding years of rage in the process: “I’m the one who insists on trying to swim with pockets full of memories as heavy as stones.” There is more loss, more grief ahead as Mattie learns how to say goodbye without bitterness, savoring the comfort of memories, especially of the man who never turned his back on a rebellious stepdaughter: “Until I let go of him, I’d never be able to grab ahold of anything else.” Peace is found in unexpected places, an old woman’s home a temporary haven in a life that might have ended tragically.

Without artifice or unnecessary complications, the author explores the poor choices of a lost mother who, in turn, leaves her angry daughter to face the world unprepared, a child lashing out in self-protection, blaming others to excuse her own transgressions. On her own in Oklahoma, Mattie falls under the spell of her own family history, her fears quieted, her heart leached of the need to retaliate. Mattie is on the precipice of becoming the woman she was meant to be.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2015

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